Posts Tagged ‘Ken Price’
When Peter Voulkos began to exhibit his large-scale works in the mid-1950s, he had already been recognized as a leading potter in the U.S. Voulkos won prizes at the National Ceramic Exhibition, as well as a Gold Medal at the International Exposition of Ceramics in Cannes, France. Yet, during this time he also absorbed many influences, from Flamenco to Jazz, and from Picasso to Abstract Expressionism.
An early article in Craft Horizons, published in October 1956, has many quotes from Peter. This is the period of time when Voulkos was breaking away from craft traditions, so he had a lot to say about his working method. One quote that has stayed with me is this:
“The minute you begin to understand what you’re doing it loses that searching quality. You have to forget about the little technical problems that don’t matter—you’ve overcome them long ago anyway. You finally reach a point where you’re no longer concerned with keeping this blob of clay centered on the wheel and up in the air. Your emotions take over and what happens just happens. Usually you don’t know it’s happened until after it’s done.”
Voulkos kept to this way of working throughout his life, freely improvising like a musician. His straightforward, powerful and direct way of working was later characterized by Ken Price as “direct frontal onslaught”. I recently found this 1984 photo, from Peter’s show at the Faith and Charity in Hope Gallery—a gallery owned and operated by Edward Kienholz and his wife Nancy. Kienholz not only admired Voulkos’ work, he owned a work from 1958.
This is the first in a series of posts about Peter Voulkos, focused on individual artworks. All images used are copyright of The Estate of Peter Voulkos, by photographer Gabriel Seri.
What is it about the presence of a stunning piece of pottery? What makes us sense the rhythm of relationships, and what communicates the tactile nature of the medium of ceramics? I’ve wondered why, out of the thousands of pots I’ve had the chance to view and to hold, some stand out. At the very top of my list is a 1961 vase by Peter Voulkos. Let’s take a deeper look at one pot.
Untitled, 1961 is a superb example of the strong, quickly thrown, and sparsely glazed vase form—modified by sgraffito and loosely brushed glazes. First of all, it’s large: a little over 13 inches high, by 7 inches wide. It’s also important to feel the weight of the piece (12 pounds), to understand the mass of clay that was used; this is not a dainty flower vase, but one that has a rustic, raw heft. When handling this thrown cylindrical vessel, I noticed how throwing marks remain on the white glazed interior. Large, and almost conforming to the size of fingers, those marks are interrupted on the inside by four long vertical creases, evidence of the fingers pulling up and pushing out—creating a four-sided vase, with a slight bulge at the mid-point. While other potters might have paddled the thrown cylinder into such a shape, Voulkos cut the outer shape four times with a taut wire to make this form’s sides. He rapidly and intuitively set up the structure, ready for his next step.
By changing the tapered cylindrical form into a four-sided open vessel, Voulkos gave himself the chance to place four simple, but deeply incised marks: a circle, an “X”, a vertical slash and a horizontal slash. These are evidently cut into the surface with a knife: an incision for the “O” and the “X”, and a deeper knife cut for the horizontal and the vertical slashes. The latter two are pushed out from the interior, opening the wounds and widening the cuts, but never altering those gestures after making them. In this way, the pot reveals the synergy of Voulkos’ hand and his effortless mastery of the properties of the medium. Take a look at the four sides here:
Color is reduced to a familiar palette of simple glazes, common to Voulkos’ work during this period. As he once described, there was a bucket of black glaze, a bucket of white glaze, and a bucket brown, sometimes one of blue. That was all. But it’s the loose, painterly way they are handled that makes them contribute to the improvisational nature of the piece. In fact, the glaze treatment is perfectly in tune with the incisions made into the surface, some of which remain on the sand-colored, groggy clay body—left totally raw. As for spontaneity: just let the drips fall where they may.
What does this all mean? First of all, we see the skilled physicality of his dance with the material. Voulkos worked deliberately, with improvisation and without preconception. His previous experience (during the years 1949 to 1954 he won 29 prizes, medals and competitions for his technical skills) gave him the fluid and confident gestures within material and form, as if he were a musician improvising on a theme. The second thing to notice is the presence of the hand, and the trace it leaves. Ceramics are the most tactile of mediums: haptic communication, the most basic, is everywhere in this piece. Holding the piece gives me a direct understanding of its form, and my hands can trace the movement of his.
What do the marks mean? Probably nothing. It’s ludicrous to say that we know. They are an expression that is simple and probably void. Voulkos may have just been saying that: nothingness, as shown in the zero; a crossing of lines, as shown in the X, and two basic properties of horizontality and verticality. An aesthetic can be understood, though, by the striking simplicity and placement of the marks. There is a rightness to those gestures, not laden with references or meaning—just a record of the interaction of an individual with his medium, with effortless perfection.
Is that Zen? Some may claim that it is, but as it turns out, that’s a pretty dubious and probably false idea. There’s very little hard evidence that artists of his circle had a deep understanding of Zen Buddhism. Yes, Shoji Hamada had famously done pottery demonstrations in his tours of the U.S. with Yanagi Sōetsu, but their message was about the preservation of Japanese folk handicraft (Mingei). And in 1954, it is possible that Voulkos saw works by Rosanjin, a well-known Japanese ceramicist, on exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in Exposition Park. While a few potters (like Paul Soldner and Mac McClain) report that they passed around thin paperbacks about Zen (possibly by authors D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts) or listened to lectures, none had formally committed to the life of a Zen Buddhist monk. And, for that matter, none had traveled to Asian countries to see monasteries or kiln sites, until Ken Price went to Japan in 1962. Later, Paul Soldner traveled and met the Raku family, finally learning that his version of American Raku had misunderstood the centuries-old tradition.
There were joking references in the air, which loosely interpreted the rustic simplicity of works reproduced in books, but a deeper understanding of the rigorous discipline eluded most of the ceramic artists. Los Angeles painter John McLaughlin was a true student of Buddhism (and an authority on Japanese prints); McLaughlin had first hand experience. Later, one of the original artists in the Ferus gallery, Alan Lynch, became a Zen monk, in a Zen community in Paris and then in North Carolina. But Voulkos was much more known to be a heavy drinker, and preferred to play Flamenco music.
On the other hand, perhaps Voulkos was a master, in a different dimension: that of a no-rules consciousness, where the mind is free of concepts, and open to the void. He embodied pure skill and simple but marvelous intuition. So, indeed, does this vase.
This week, the Frank Lloyd Gallery announced the closing of the public exhibition program at Bergamot Station. As of February 14, the gallery will close its doors, and move to a private space in Pasadena. The current show, of Peter Voulkos and Craig Kauffman, will be the last. After a long and successful program of over 190 exhibitions, the founder and director, Frank Lloyd, sat down to talk with Kelly Boyd and answer a few questions:
Q.: Why would you want to leave the gallery business?
A.: Well, after nineteen years of exhibitions, publications, and sales, I am finally moving on. I consider it more of a transition. I have to leave behind this accomplishment, and forge ahead with another job, as the full-time representative of an artist’s estate. I also have very personal reasons for the move, since I need to be close to my 91-year-old mother.
Q.: But what about your artists? What will happen to them?
A.: When I started the gallery, I had a specific mission of presenting ceramic artwork in a fine art context. The gallery functioned on three levels: as a commercial venue for individual artists, as an educational resource for the community of Southern California. I wanted to preserve a legacy of ceramics in Los Angeles. Finally, the gallery served as a forum for dialogue among artists, collectors and critics. I think it succeeded on all those goals.
Later, as the gallery expanded, I showed artists from other countries, including England, Mexico, France, Holland and especially Japan. Then, I further expanded the program to include contemporary painters and sculptors, because I thought they all came out of the same time period in L.A., the innovative post-war period. In many ways, ceramics, along with assemblage, led the way back then. Voulkos, Mason and Price were examples of fearless leadership and grew out of a common bond.
Q.: But the artists, what will happen to them? You didn’t answer my question.
A.: Oh, you’re right! I’m pleased to say that, for several reasons, ceramics has regained its rightful spot in the mainstream. Just today I had the pleasure of reading a review in the Boston Globe about an exhibition of 200 years of American ceramics at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Featured were Cheryl Ann Thomas and Adrian Saxe. Also, an artist that I represented for 16 years, John Mason, has now regained his position in the art world, with shows like the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time, the recent Whitney Biennial, and his representation by David Kordansky.
I’m proud of showing Larry Bell since 2006, and now he’s with an international powerhouse gallery, White Cube. Even a less well-known ceramic artist from Japan, Satoru Hoshino, is having a show with Dominique Levy. Others that I’ve shown, like Betty Woodman and Ken Price, both had retrospective exhibits at the Metropolitan. Back in 2003, Dave Hickey for Artforum named Ron Nagle’s show at my gallery one of the top shows in the world. Now, he’s been in the Venice Bienniale and had a survey at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. Adrian Saxe continues to win awards and recognition from critics and organizations.
Q.: Is that because of what you did? Do you take credit for that?
A.: No, I think the artists should get all the credit, I’ve always thought that. But the art world is increasingly aware of these artists, now, and there is a feeling of some vindication. I get some satisfaction out of seeing these artists, who I showed and believed in, get the change in visibility. I think it’s due to several factors, actually. I just felt it was going to happen, twenty years ago when I started the gallery. The exhibition program was all about the place of these artists and that history.
Q.: What exactly are the factors you’re referring to?
A.: First is the obvious trend: Young artists have been using the ceramic medium, and they have no real material hierarchy. That’s a major factor. Younger artists will use anything; they are, quite fortunately, not bound to the old prejudices against clay. Critics have been champions of this use by young artists as well as the use by recognized artists. And curators have recognized the value of the work—look at the tremendous reception for the retrospective of Ken Price, for instance. The curators at major museums are making a big difference in the public’s perception.
Q.: What other examples?
A.: Well, the gallery showed the ceramic work of a major woman sculptor, Lynda Benglis. We had two quite visible and successful shows of Betty Woodman’s work, well in advance of the retrospective at the Met. We’ve shown a significant number of women, including the early group like Vivika Heino, Laura Andreson and Beatrice Wood, then more contemporary artists like Cindy Kolodziejski, Jennifer Lee, Marilyn Levine, Betty Woodman, and Elizabeth Fritsch, as well as sculptors like Lynda. Cheryl Ann Thomas is another example. We didn’t just show the men!
Q.: What part of the gallery are you most proud of?
A.: Oh, that’s easy: the publications. I’ve taken that job seriously, working with writers and a legendary graphic designer. In many ways, I was lucky to work with a superb graphic designer, the late Joe Molloy, and he mentored me through the process of publishing. I still have a huge stash of our publications, in which we published the writing of Kristine McKenna, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, and the art historian Frances Colpitt.
I’d also have to say that every day in my gallery was enhanced by the architecture, designed by Fred Fisher. It’s a sad thing to leave this space, so perfectly designed.
Q.: So, that’s a regret. What was your biggest disappointment?
A.: Lack of attendance. We work our butts off, and then the attendance is poor.
A.: Yes, and it’s a great memory. The big crowd pleasers were clearly deserving: Adrian Saxe’s shows—any of them! And then, we had people return again with their family, just to see the stunning and heartfelt works of French sculptor Georges Jeanclos. The first show of Peter Voulkos in 1999, that had people lined up just to get in. All were extremely gratifying to present. But lately, the attention has shifted and we are working on other projects.
Q.: Will you be busy? Is there enough work in your new job to keep you busy? Or are you retiring?
A.: This is a common question. The truth is, with an artist of this significance, Craig Kauffman, there is more than enough research, conservation, and publication to keep a full staff busy for a decade. The representatives of artist’s estates, and many foundations, are dedicated to the job of preserving and protecting the legacy and work of an artist. We’ll have plenty to do.
Q.: Won’t you miss the gallery business?
A.: I’ll miss the people. I have a number of passionate colleagues. That’s something I learned: many art dealers are passionate and committed individuals. We are fortunate to have them. I must say that there should be more recognition for the patrons and the dealers. I started by coming from the artists’ side—and now I’ve learned more about the collectors and the dealers. Art world news is often about hot young artists, the big money that is spent, and the connections to celebrity, all of it coming in a steady stream on new portal sites, traditional news media, and social media. But the thing that sustains it all is the hard work and passion of the artists, dealers, and patrons. I’d hate to see an art world without art galleries.
Q.: How would you sum up the last 19 years?
A.: In five words or less? A lot of hard work. But seriously, when I started, I wanted to make a statement: a gallery with a sense of history, that presents itself as a strong and relevant component of the contemporary art world. Although it was originally media-specific and became known as a specialty gallery, everything we exhibited had a relationship to painting and sculpture. We presented ceramics as a vital part of the regional and national scene and we also proposed links between historical precedents and contemporary ceramics. That was the reason for the expanded program, and it succeeded in many ways. I think the last show is a good way to finish the statement, and I’ll continue to try to set the record straight.
Last week I received some gratifying news in the form of a very positive review of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston’s current exhibition, Nature, Sculpture, Abstraction, and Clay: One Hundred Years of American Ceramics. Sebastian Smee, writing for the Boston Globe, reviewed the show, which presents gifts from the Daphne Farago Collection and the Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons Collection, in addition to other new acquisitions.
In a show of more than 70 pieces, several artists represented by the Frank Lloyd Gallery were singled out for praise. For example, while describing Adrian Saxe’s 1989 work Float/Aloft, Smee writes that, “Purely formal and aesthetic concerns were overtaken by a new sense of self-aware play, extending into the realms of language, pop culture, and politics.” Ken Price and Ralph Bacerra are also identified as artists of particular stature, represented by works engaged in creative dialogue with the historical pieces on display.
The review closes with the MFA Boston’s newly acquired work by Cheryl Ann Thomas, December. Calling it “A highlight — and a great note to end on,” Smee goes on to say that the piece “is truly something to behold.”
In the New York Times this morning, I found some unprecedented news. The above-the-fold story by Holland Cotter, “The East Coast of California,” included his phrase “…an unheard-of convergence here of major California shows.” Below the fold, Mr. Cotter reviewed the Ken Price retrospective at the Metropolitan, while Roberta Smith addressed James Turrell at the Guggenheim, and Ken Johnson wrote about the Llyn Foulkes show at the New Museum.
Unprecedented, indeed—and also amazing that the curatorial work of LACMA’s Stephanie Barron and the Hammer’s Ali Subotnick are again recognized. Not just the artists from the West Coast, but the curatorial vision. Mr. Cotter’s leading line was, “The project [Pacific Standard Time] was a big success and continues to generate energy.”
How vindicated do the PST folks at the Getty Research Institute feel? Pretty strongly justified, if you look at Project Specialist Glenn Phillips’ Facebook post. The Yale-trained art historian noted “Many people claimed that Pacific Standard Time would never have more than local impact, particularly in relation to New York,” and goes on to cite the three exhibits of Price, Turrell, and Foulkes as well as the current “State of Mind” show at PS1, the Paul McCarthy installation at the Armory, and the upcoming full-floor installation by Robert Irwin at the Whitney. (Let’s not forget about Jay DeFeo, the San Francisco painter whose Whitney retrospective just closed earlier this month.)
I don’t want this post to seem like a laundry list, but it’s also a matter of record that “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980” appeared at MoMA’s PS1 last year, and that “Asco: Elite of the Obscure, a Retrospective, 1972-1987” had a run at Williams College (alma mater of many U.S. museum curators and directors). “California Design, 1930-1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way,” continues its worldwide tour, and Wendy Kaplan’s publication is now in its 4th printing. PST is having a lasting effect.
Back in October 13, 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s critic Peter Plagens (who is a former Angeleno) questioned, “isn’t PST preaching to the choir?” It’s obvious that’s just not true.
As the exhibition Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective makes its way to its third and final destination – The Metropolitan Museum of Art – I find myself reflecting on Ken Price’s history with the gallery. We’ve shown his work many times over the years, in both solo and group exhibitions. Looking back through our archives, it makes me happy to see the wide range of his works that we’ve presented.
I first had the pleasure of exhibiting Price’s work in 1998 in an exhibition titled John Mason, Ken Price, Peter Voulkos. The show included an Untitled Mound from 1959, a historic work that had been featured in the artist’s first solo show at the Ferus Gallery in 1960. A very similar piece was more recently on view at the Williamson Gallery at Scripps College for their 2012 exhibition Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968.
Since then, I’ve exhibited a diverse mix of Ken Price’s work, including a 1970s geometric cup, selections from his Happy’s Curios period, a series of plates from the 1990s, and his more recent, brilliantly colorful, biomorphic forms. In addition to an intimate survey of small ceramics, the gallery’s latest show of Price’s work displayed examples of his print-making activities, in the form of large lithographs and silkscreens.
I wanted to document the 2012 show in a more personal way, so I asked Larry Bell, a good friend and peer of Ken Price, to lead an exhibition walk-through of the show. I’ve posted this video before but think it’s worth repeating – Bell’s sincere and insightful commentary about the artist and his work is a pleasure to hear.
About a year ago, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion about the change in status of contemporary ceramics. The position and ranking of ceramics in the world of contemporary art has been shifting for over 60 years. Great artists have made the biggest difference in overcoming prejudices, and have been quite blunt about their assessment of how the art world perceives their work. Ken Price, for instance, succinctly noted that in the middle 1950s, the material hierarchy was established, saying that, “In those days, clay as an art medium was dead and buried.”[i]
The first task for the panel, I thought, would be to enumerate the ways that such a lowly ranking was overcome. In the current environment, a viewer can see contemporary ceramics in major museums and hundreds of galleries. How and why has this happened, and what were the forces for this change? I believe there are some clear reasons:
First, the lack of material hierarchy in the work of young artists made it clear that a new attitude about media exists (this is especially evident in curated exhibitions such as the award-winning show at the Hammer titled “Thing”, or the traveling show from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia titled “Dirt on Delight”). This seems to be coming from two sources: university and art school-trained artists who are the product of interdisciplinary programs; and the popular culture at large. Younger artists have adopted the contemporary music world’s sampling techniques—piecing together disparate parts and re-mixing them. Old school ideas of purity and media specificity just don’t apply anymore.
Second, critical acceptance has accelerated profoundly. These days, art journals and newspapers have major critics such as Roberta Smith, Christopher Knight, Dave Hickey, Christopher Miles, Leah Ollman and Peter Schjeldahl championing both ceramics shows and individual ceramic artists. Dozens more reviews are being published in mainstream art journals, rather than being segregated into craft-specific publications.
A third reason for the new standing of ceramics in the public’s eye is a burgeoning maturity of curatorial vision and the building of significant collections (both regional and in major encyclopedic museums). This also involves recognition of the rich traditions of other countries. The organization of group exhibitions and acquisitions by major museums including the Met and LACMA are also indications of ceramic art’s rising status.
Fourth, of course, is the fact that the use of ceramic materials continues to grow. Major artists since Picasso have worked seriously in clay, but now it’s nearly ubiquitous, as artists from contemporary art—even Jeff Koons and Ai Wei-Wei—use the medium.
Finally, there has been shift in the historical and curatorial perception of some major artists and their respected position in the overall canon. Just consider the Betty Woodman retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the recent LACMA retrospective of the late Ken Price, which travels nationally to the Nasher and then the Metropolitan, with each venue designed by the great architect Frank Gehry.
We are now in an era when a major critic (Roberta Smith) in the New York Times writes about a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in these terms:
“The show’s determination to integrate ceramics into the art mainstream is nothing new. But its refusal to do so simply by slipping some universally agreed-upon ceramic exceptions into a show of painting, sculpture and so forth is close to groundbreaking. “Dirt on Delight” argues for ceramics as a more than worthy subject. It reminds us that the art form incorporates quite a bit of painting and sculpture, thank you, and has one of the richest histories of any medium on the planet. Ceramics also plays well with all kinds of artistic ideas and needs no propping up by supposedly serious fine art or, incidentally, by much in the way of explanatory labels.” [ii]
[i] Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, A Life in Clay (interview with Ken Price), Artnet online magazine, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/drohojowska-philp/drohojowska-philp10-22-08.asp
[ii] Roberta Smith, Dirt on Delight, New York Times, May 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/arts/design/20dirt.html/